Crystal River, Florida: Tranquility Amid Manatees

One of the approximately 50 manatees that live in Kings Bay year-round swims by our boat during our swim with the manatees boat tour from the Plantation Adventure Center. Photos by Jeff Orenstein

By Jeff and Virginia Orenstein

Note: We recommend that travelers follow CDC guidelines and check with each mode of transportation and specific venue of interest for current information before traveling. Check you go.

Crystal River is the only place in the world where you can swim with the manatees in their natural habitat and enjoy what Florida’s seacoast must have been a century or more ago. It is a great place for a getaway that is different from most Florida destinations.

The Crystal River and environs are on Florida’s Nature Coast and just an hour and a quarter’s drive from bustling, modern Tampa. Traveling that distance is almost like a time warp, bringing you to a delightful oasis of southern hospitality and “old Florida” charm. Located on scenic and largely unspoiled Kings Bay and adjacent to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, this off-the-beaten-path region abounds with natural attractions, as well as a generous helping of new and old Florida.

Kings Bay and its tributaries are a popular place to explore the manatee-inhabited waters.

Downtown Crystal River still exudes “old” Florida feel with kitschy shops and walkable streets. Kings Bay itself is fed by at least 70 springs and its restored eel grass sea bottom attracts manatees year-round (many more in the winter) and is home to a thriving colony of bay scallops. Other bay attractions include spring diving in crystal-clear water, kayaking, paddleboarding, fishing, boating, birding, hiking and golf.

If you like outdoor activities and are looking for unique, uncrowded experiences, we recommend that you plan at least three days — and more would be better. If you are short on time and just want to swim with the manatees and see whatever else a quick getaway allows, then one or two days will give you a flavor of the place.

Before You Go:

Beautiful Kings Bay and its tributaries are ideal places to explore on a stand-up paddleboard. Here, a local resident and her canine deckhand enjoy the calm waters and balmy temperatures.

Getting There:
Crystal River can be reached by highway, air or train.

By car, Crystal River and the Florida Nature Coast are along S.R. 98 which runs north and south to the west of U.S. 41 and Interstate 75.

By air, Tampa International Airport (TPA) is 74 miles distant, and Orlando International (MCO) is 97 miles away.

By train, Amtrak serves Tampa. The station is 79 miles away.
The nearest cruise port is Tampa, 78.5 miles to the south.

Must-Sees and Dos for a Short Trip:
Visit Three Sisters Springs, Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.

Take a guided swim with the manatees tour at the Plantation Adventure Center or other locations

Visit the Inverness Depot District and walk the Withlacoochee Trail.

Take an airboat ride with River Safaris.

The Tiki Bar at the Plantation on Crystal River is a place along the Crystal River where hotel guests and boaters congregate.

If You Have Several Days:
Try your luck with fresh and/or saltwater fishing either inshore or deep sea.

Visit Tarpon Springs and experience the Florida version of Greece.

Explore Tampa’s museums and attractions, 73 miles distant.

Check out the theme parks in Orlando, 87 miles away.

Ginny O’s Tips for Dressing the Simply Smart Travel Way Crystal River:
This is a relaxed and casual resort area. There is no need to dress up. Resort casual dress for dining and appropriate recreation wear is always good.

This Destination at a Glance:
Over 50 Advantage: Beautiful waterscapes, relaxing “old Florida” ambiance.

The busy docks at the Plantation Adventure Center are a popular embarkation point along the Crystal River for fishing, scalloping and manatee excursions.

Mobility Level: Low except for swimming with the manatees or other water sports.

When to Go: Year-round. May through September are hot and sticky but a bit less crowded. Winters are glorious, especially November through March. January can have some cool days. Manatees are present year-round but are most prevalent between Thanksgiving and Easter.

Where to Stay: The Plantation on Crystal River. Great dinner at Katch Twenty-Two in nearby Lecanto.

Special Travel Interests: Manatees, natural springs and water sports.

Jewish Crystal River
While Florida’s Nature Coast and Citrus County are not hotbeds of Judaic life, there is still some Jewish presence in the region. There are some clusters of Jews in the Villages, Leesburg and Beverly Hills and larger concentrations of Jewish life in Tampa and Orlando.

Kings Bay and its tributaries are a popular place to explore the manatee-inhabited waters.

Citrus County developed slowly after the Civil War. Early Jewish settlers included Philip Rubin and his family, who moved to Crystal River from Daytona Beach in 1929. Rubin owned a furniture store and served three terms as the mayor of Crystal River. The county did not experience significant growth until the 1960s and had few Jews in residence. However, when development finally hit the county, it was largely catalyzed by a Jewish businessman from New York, Sam Kellner.

Kellner bought 3,500 acres in interior Citrus County in 1960, developed the cattle land, named it Beverly Hills and built and sold homes to retirees from the urban North, especially New York and Detroit. It was a pioneer retirement-oriented planned community in Central Florida. By 1968, a small number of Jews lived there and founded the Beverly Hills Jewish Center. By the 1970s, they began to call themselves Congregation Beth Sholom and affiliated with the Conservative movement.

Congregation Beth Sholom continued its activities into the 21st century, with regular services and lifecycle events. The religious school operated until at least 2002, and Rabbi Zvi Ettinger served the congregation until approximately 2006. Another small Jewish group, Chavurah Shabbat, also met in the early 2000s, holding monthly Shabbat services at members’ homes in Crystal River. Beth Sholom is the only Jewish congregation in Citrus County at present time.

Other synagogues include a Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Center approximately 31 miles from Crystal River in Ocala and Congregation B’nai Israel in Gainesville, 54 miles away. There is no kosher food available locally around Crystal River.

Jeffrey and Virginia Orenstein are travel writers from Sarasota, Florida.



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